It’s the New Haven icon that isn’t Yale. Stately university buildings neighbor the landmark institution called Toad’s Place, the York Street nightclub near Broadway, which turns 43 years old this year.
Once the original Yale Co-op, the building was also a popular restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s in the 1960s. It turned into a tavern for a spell until a former Culinary Institute of America student opened a French restaurant in 1974, naming it Toad’s Place. It was an inside joke, a term the restaurateur, Michael Spoerndle, used as a child when his parents, self-described homebodies or “couch potatoes,” would go out to eat, a rare act for them and far less frequent a generation ago.
With his two co-owners, Spoerndle gradually brought in bluegrass and cover bands to offer diners entertainment. The restaurant failed, but the music struck a chord (no pun intended), and by 1976 it had morphed into a live music venue.
Since then, Toad’s Place, called New Haven’s living room for great music, has drawn a veritable who’s who of rock, jazz, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop artists to the club. Five years ago, “Rolling Stone” magazine named it one of the top 20 venues in the country, noting its national fame for two iconic shows less than six months apart.
The first, its biggest claim to history, came when the Rolling Stones played a surprise concert before they began a 1989 tour. Seven hundred fans filled the club; tickets were $3 each. Five months later, in January 1990, Bob Dylan played his longest-ever show (more than five hours) at the club before starting his own national tour.
Other famous names have performed at Toad’s too, some before they were big, like Phish (twice in the early 90s) and R.E.M., Talking Heads, and Black Eyed Peas. The back of Toad’s Place t-shirts are covered with the names of virtually every band that have performed inside the 7,000-square-foot club, capacity 1,000. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Bon Jovi, Beck, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Dave Matthews, Wilco, David Bowie. On and on goes the list.
“Toad’s has a unique vibe,” says Jack Reich, the club’s national booking director from his office at The Strand in Providence, a ballroom and theater. “Not too many rock clubs have been in the same location for so many years.
“The sound and lighting systems are top notch and the intimacy of the room makes it a special place to see a show,” says Rich.
Spoerndle’s two partners eventually moved on. By serendipity, a new partner emerged, Brian Phelps, who was working at a karate school on nearby Broadway when a vandal broke through the school door, stealing the school’s sign. Phelps went searching for it, believing it hadn’t gone far when he found it around the corner at Toad’s Place. Phelps talked to Spoerndle, the thief was arrested, the two became friends, and in the fall of 1976, Phelps was hired as the club manager, learning on the job how to book, promote and run the club.
Eventually, Phelps became co-owner, taking control in 1995. Spoerndle, who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, died in 2011.
“I never imagined this,” says Phelps, a New Haven native, from his office above the main room where the big acts perform. “If that incident didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here.”
Reminiscing about the Stones and Dylan shows, Phelps sounds like a ballplayer reliving a momentous home run he hit, even if the gigs landed at Toads because both the Stones and Dylan wanted an intimate club setting before heading off to the big coliseums across the country.
Phelps talks that way about Billy Joel too. He played in 1980 for two nights, recording a song at Toad’s for his album “Songs in the Attic,” before selling out the 16,606-seat Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center) two more nights. “People always loved Billy Joel,” Phelps says.
Other bands too played Toad’s to warm up before bigger venues, including the rock band O.A.R., who performed the following night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“We try to be a total night club with all different styles of music,” says Phelps. “Back in the ’80s through the early ’90s, we were doing mostly rock-oriented stuff. Then hip-hop came in and started getting bigger in the ’90s, and,” he says, “we started to move with it,” booking such legends as Nas, Ms. Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar.
Beyond live music, Toad’s Place is also known for college dance parties, often on Saturday nights, with disc jockey-selected music. Besides students from Yale, the club draws from nearby Southern Connecticut State University, the University of New Haven, Quinnipiac University in Hamden and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
The club even offers shows for high school students and younger kids whose parents drop them off so they can dance to singers like Jacob Sartorius or Sammy Wilk and Derek Luh. “We couldn’t survive on the 21-and-over crowd,” Phelps says, noting the legal drinking age in Connecticut. For the under-21 shows, the club’s bar closes and only non-alcoholic drinks are served.
Besides the main room, Toad’s features two other smaller clubs within the building, Lilly’s Pad and the Rainforest room. Often on Monday nights, for example, jazz musician Rohn Lawrence & Friends, is a main staple in the Pad. He grew up in West Haven, and counts four generations in New Haven.
Over the years, Phelps has watched technology affect the music business. In the early years, to get word out about upcoming shows, “All we had to do years ago was put some advertisements in the New Haven Advocate, [the former alternative weekly newspaper] and some ads on [radio station] WPLR,” recalls Phelps.
Today Toad’s Place has an active Facebook page and uses Twitter regularly. Its huge database, based on online ticket purchases, allows staff to email fans about specific acts.
Of course, pulling off any production takes local manpower. On busy nights, up to 60 men and women from New Haven and nearby work behind the scenes, led by Phelps, general manager Ed Dingus and office manager Hollis Martin. Included are bartenders, bar-backs or runners, waitresses, security personnel, cashiers, sound and lighting engineers, loaders and city police officers. On sold-out nights, add a city fire marshal.
Ironically, when Phelps started working at Toad’s he was hardly into music. But he learned the ropes. And anyone who loves music has found their way or heard about Toad’s Place. Says Phelps: “Most people in the area have been here one time or another.